The 2019 101 Best Restaurants in L.A. is here! The annual guide that Patricia Escárcega and I toiled over for nearly a year went live on Monday night during a celebration event at downtown’s Vibiana. The print edition — beautifully designed by Martina Ibañez-Baldor and Steven Banks — will be in subscribers’ newspapers tomorrow, Dec. 15. (You can also buy a copy online.)
101 already feels like an unwieldy number, but it also can’t begin to encompass the region’s wondrous scope. Patricia and I started our jobs a year ago; we struggled to pare down the standouts by mid-September, when we had to finalize our decisions for print deadlines.
We’re proud of the list, but of course we also wished for more room and more time. Last year, when Food section colleagues Andrea Chang, Jenn Harris and Amy Scattergood compiled their 101 Restaurants We Love guide, they included 10 restaurants they slid into a Classics/Hall of Fame category. Patricia and I cleaved on to that idea; you’ll find Spago, Coni’Seafood and Asanebo among this year’s classic entrants. (We also repeated Musso and Frank Grill from last year’s roster, to honor the restaurant’s centennial.)
Because of the mid-September cutoff, we didn’t consider some restaurants we’ve since reviewed this fall and loved. Patricia particularly mentioned Silver Lake’s Spoon & Pork, a Filipino restaurant where the patita (long-braised, air-dried and fried pork shank) is transcendent, and the adobo belly nigiri is also wonderful (and so perfectly L.A.).
Another restaurant that missed consideration because of when it opened: Pasjoli in Santa Monica, which I reviewed this week. Dave Beran serves his stellar, reconsidered versions of haute French standards such as foie gras au torchon (made with chicken livers because of the California foie ban), vanilla bean rice pudding with caramelized pineapple and the tableside spectacle of pressed duck.
We show plenty of love to Josef Centeno’s three downtown restaurants in this year’s 101, but most every food writer in town I know has been crushing on Centeno’s new Tex-Cal-Mex Ama·cita in Culver City. The puffy tacos at happy hour, to name one dish, are a heartening homage to San Antonio.
I also recently fell for Encino’s Shin Sushi, a tiny, 17-month-old omakase restaurant that showcases Taketoshi Azumi’s mastery with nigiri.
And one more newish place worth addressing: Baroo Canteen, the resurrection of game-changing Baroo. Kwang Uh is one of L.A.’s most original culinary voices to emerge in the last five years. Why isn’t the restaurant on the list, then? Uh runs a temporary location with his wife, Mina Park, in East Hollywood’s Union Swap Meet; the building, already emptying out, is scheduled for demolition sometime in early 2020. Like many food obsessives, I await eating Uh’s fermentation-focused cuisine in more permanent digs soon. In the meantime, go to the couple’s stall for lunch, and make it on the early side: They tend to start running out of food by 2 p.m.
If you have questions or thoughts about the list’s inclusions and omissions, email me at email@example.com. We’re already thinking about next year‘s list.
Ask the critics
I’m curious to know if you have ever been “outed” as a critic at a restaurant? If so, how do you move forward with the meal?
— Dana M., via email
Yes, I have been recognized as a critic at restaurants in Los Angeles since moving here a year ago. There is no current picture of me online that I can find, but a photo of me once posted on Instagram unthinkingly by a former colleague gets passed between hands in some chef circles.
Anonymity is an endless topic around restaurant criticism. Plenty of colleagues don’t bother with the pretense any longer, though I think most of them are still relieved when they visit a restaurant without being identified — when they’re just another diner having, hopefully, the same general experience as the other diners around them. I deeply prefer not being spotted. When I am, I see the staff become stressed, and that’s of no benefit to anyone.
But also? This is my career, and a profession that I love, so I move forward with the meal by being as present as possible. Yes, a kitchen crew can worry over dishes with extra care, but recipes don’t magically change. Rarely do I leave sensing my food radically tasted better because the chef knew a critic was in the house.
Service tends to change, for better and for worse, and so in places where I’ve been busted I often don’t write much about that particular aspect; it depends. (Blessedly in L.A. there are many, many restaurants that don’t give a flying fig about whether I’m a critic or not. The places with the highest tabs and the thinnest margins obsess the most, for obvious reasons.) I’m thinking of one restaurant in Row DTLA where the rhythm of my meal was idyllic, while the pace of dinner at the table next to me was glacial. Those customers noticed. No one feels good in that situation.
It’s funny. I studied singing and acting in college. I wanted to be a performer. After working in restaurant kitchens through a good chunk of my 20s and becoming a strives-to-be-anonymous critic at 30 years old, I’ve come to prefer not being a public face. We’ll see how it all plays out.
Patricia reviews Knife Pleat, the French restaurant in Costa Mesa by Tony Esnault and Yassmin Sarmadi, who previously ran Church & State and Spring in DTLA.
Jenn Harris gives us a glimpse inside Josiah Citrin’s reimagined Mélisse, which soon will be two restaurants.
And finally, Ben Mims arm wrestles Buddha’s hand and wins with marmalade.
(You saw Ben’s spectacular 12 days of holiday cookies last week, right?)